Japan’s “silver supplements” market is a great place to be if you’re in the food industry, with figures showing that those Japanese between 60 and 70 are among the biggest consumers in society there.
And with savings, pensions and a desire to retain their youth over a lengthy dotage, they have money to spend on anti-ageing supplements like placenta.
Placentas are a source of Human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a naturally produced substance which is used in the treatment of obesity, asthma, gastritis, neurosis, heart damage, hyperlipemias, hypercholesterolemia, eczemas, glaucoma, alcoholism, and more recently Kaposi's sarcoma. Retail placenta products, which stimulate cell growth, and are mostly used to promote younger skin. Premium 35ml bottles of placenta extract will cost anything up to US$50, and that amount equates to a recommended daily dose.
Placenta is nothing new in the Far East, even if the product isn’t well known across Europe and north America. It has been used for generations in China when dried as a healthful restorative in traditional medicine. But across the East China sea, it is Japan where the organ is seeing most interest by ageing consumers.
To illustrate this, a quick search for “placenta Japan” on Alibaba.com returns 3,224 results at the time of writing; of these, all but 13 are in east or southeast Asia, and the sheer range of products is staggering. Even pharmaceutical grade human placenta extracts for injection and targeted at menopausal women.
Continuing with this convenient metric to break it down, a search for horse placenta returns 517 products, 251 for rose placenta, 36 for pig, 14 for salmon and three for cow.
It seems that horses are the favourite placenta source, based on consumer supply, while their porcine and bovine counterparts are shunned because of the fear that they contain diseases or BSE prions—or at least that is what the market fears, Mike Ikeda told us.
Ikeda, director of IMI, a B2B supplier, imports horse placentas from an slaughterhouse in south America, and prepares the extracts in Japan. This way, he says, his product is cleaner and less expensive, and his is the only company to do so.
With horses usually producing up to a dozen placentas each over a lifetime, it is understandable then how product can be pricey: there is a very limited supply of horse placentas and the price of the raw material, in the region of $US100 per organ, reflects this. From it, only a small quantity of extract will be produced.
“We deal with an Italian company that runs their own slaughterhouse in Argentina. They just slaughter the horse and take the meat, but sometimes they find a horse is pregnant. In that case, they open up the carcass and take out the placenta for us,” Ikeda told us in at an industry event in Tokyo.
“We came up with the idea by chance when I called the Italian company to ask if they had any placentas. Yes, they said, we slaughter pregnant by horses by accident. It was all by accident.”
With the Japanese market now red hot, the competition is similarly spicy. Therefore it is important for actors to differentiate their products and find lower margins from their supply chain.
Said Ikeda: “Because it comes from an abattoir, our placenta is seen as a food by the authorities and doesn't require food product approval. Those who buy their placentas from the field are dealing with health supplements and have to get approval.”
He differentiates his product by citing the quality of an organ that is removed hygienically then washed, cooled, packed and frozen without being contaminated, compared to regular placentas, which are picked up from fields some time after birth.
Representing Snowden, an industry heavyweight that exports horse and pig placenta from Japan, "Jumbo" Ryo Hasada, one of the company's senior executives, said that human placenta provided the best functionality, though in Japan it is strictly regulated and is only available in clinics through injections. It also requires traceability to identify whether the mother is carrying any diseases.
“The placenta culture has Chinese origins as a traditional medicine. It was first referenced in a dictionary 1,400 years ago by a doctor who combined ginseng with placenta,” he said.
“The culture has spread from China to Japan, as well as countries with a Chinese culture, like Vietnam and Cambodia. There’s no taboo about it in Japan and Asia.”
Japan holds the biggest placenta share, worth around $100m on the consumer market. Now in China, demand is coming from the higher levels of society, who can afford to buy premium Japanese placenta.
“Business looks very good from China, and it has the chance to overtake Japan,” Jumbo said.
We recently spoke to Marine Placenta, which takes its raw ingredient from salmon to promote it as providing almost the same benefit as pig placenta in a halal-certified format. The concept of using salmon placenta is relatively new, and both Jumbo and were scathing.
“Salmon placenta isn’t important,” said the Snowden executive. “Japanese food regulators require medical details for their approvals process, and only pig and horse placenta have been able to do that, and so have been approved as genuine health foods. Salmon doesn’t because it is not seen as a health food here.”
Ikeda agreed: “Salmon isn’t really placenta. It is just a novelty product to differentiate itself from others.”
If they are traditionalists or are just protecting their businesses, we don’t know, but it's worth bearing in mind that astaxanthin, which found in salmon, claims to be one the world best antioxidants, and may be beneficial in cardiovascular, immune, inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases. Some research has even suggested its potential as an anti-cancer agent.
One thing we did find is that horse placenta is a sizeable, cut-throat businesses in the Far East, but it’s not likely to break through to Europe or north America any time soon.
“In the west, horses are seen as friends, and not as a commodity for health foods,” explained Ikeda.
“We heard of a horse abattoir in the USA, and it was burned down five times. That’s not going to work for us, and what’s more, there are many legal processes to go through to get approvals.
“But business is strong in Asia, and we’re looking to move into Thailand and southeast Asia next year. People here know about placenta and they see its benefits. That’s good for us.”